Wailuku Clean & Safe

Lawrence Kauha‘aha‘a makes a clean start

Lawrence Kauha‘aha‘a (right) leads Wailuku Clean & Safe, a program that hires homeless and mental health clients to sweep, clean and maintain the town. Val Patao is one of five outreach coordinators who assist Kauha‘aha‘a around town. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

For The Maui News

If you don’t think a broom can be a catalyst for change, you haven’t been to Wailuku town lately.

Over the past year and a half, Market Street, the town’s main retail thoroughfare, has undergone a remarkable transformation.

“It’s night and day,” said Lawrence Kauha’aha’a, who leads Wailuku Clean & Safe, a program that hires homeless and mental health clients to sweep, clean and maintain the area.

Two years ago, Kauha’aha’a’s phone rang. Erin Wade, a small-town planner for the county, asked if he could help with the problems plaguing downtown Wailuku at the time.

“It was really bad — people sleeping in doorways, openly selling drugs, urinating in the street, threatening business owners,” Kauha’aha’a said. “I told her: ‘If you want to clean this place, have them do it. They need to be part of the solution.’ ”

The concept was already on Wade’s radar. In 2010, while working on a revitalization plan for Wailuku town, the Maui Redevelopment Agency (a board of the county Planning Department) learned of the Clean & Safe neighborhood initiatives that were cropping up on the Mainland. Five years later, as the situation became increasingly volatile, distressed Wailuku merchants and residents urged the county to tackle the issue before it spiraled out of control. That’s when Wade picked up the phone and called Kauha’aha’a to ask if he’d help her start a Clean & Safe program for Wailuku.

Kauha’aha’a was the right person for the job. The retired community police officer has close ties to a number of outreach services, including Mental Health Kokua, a nonprofit organization that provides housing, case management and psychiatry and counseling services to thousands of Hawaii residents.

In April 2016, the county awarded a grant to Kauha’aha’a’s nonprofit, Ho’omaika’i Services, to run the Wailuku Clean & Safe program as a project of the Maui Redevelopment Agency. It is modeled after national Clean & Safe efforts, but Kauha’aha’a says the Wailuku program’s partnership with Mental Health Kokua sets it apart from the rest.

Here’s how it works: Mental Health Kokua clients apply for a position with Wailuku Clean & Safe and all applicants go through a hiring process. They must supply a photo ID, Social Security number and pass a job interview. Once they are on the payroll, employees are assigned to one of two shifts (morning or afternoon) throughout the week and are tasked with sweeping and cleaning a designated section of Market Street with a broom and dustpan — motorized leaf blowers are strictly prohibited.

Apart from the noise, Kauha’aha’a explained, “We don’t want them to use anything that would create a social barrier.” And like most jobs, Wailuku Clean & Safe employees are held accountable if they’re late or miss a shift (a doctor’s note or other documentation is required).

The program offers more than an hourly wage — it also provides a sense of purpose.

“A lot of these people want to work but no one will hire them,” Kauha’aha’a said. “This program has helped them build their self-esteem. They’ve become invested in themselves and their community.”

And through social inclusion, Wailuku Clean & Safe also is working to destigmatize mental illness and homelessness. As part of their job description, employees exchange pleasantries with passers-by while they’re on the clock.

“I tell them: ‘You have a stake in this; you have an opportunity to change people’s perceptions,’ ” Kauha’aha’a said. “And I think they have.”

Shortly before launching the program in July 2016, Kauha’aha’a recruited five outreach coordinators to assist him: David Kauha’aha’a, Brian Mansano, Frank Tam, Vernon Patao and Val Patao. The six men (most of whom also have regular jobs) have become familiar faces around town.

“If we are out sick or go on vacation, people notice,” Val Patao said. “When we come back, they’ll say, ‘Where have you been?’ ”

Seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., the men take turns patrolling the streets of downtown Wailuku. They check in with workers during their shifts and keep an eye out for anyone posing an imminent danger to themselves or others — or who may need help accessing housing, medical or mental health services.

“We are the eyes and ears,” Patao said. “We know what to look for and how to respond.”

It’s safe to say that Wailuku business owners and residents couldn’t be happier with the program’s efforts. And the same can be said for Wailuku Clean & Safe’s employees.

“We’ve changed the town — and we’ve changed people, too.” Kauha’aha’a said. “That’s a win-win for everyone.”

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